I have, I must admit, something of an amused fascination with the ontological argument for the existence of a god. Or, rather I should say, I'm quite awe-struck by the sheer number of people who seem to believe it's a good argument.
(Long-time readers may remember that I once used it to "prove" the existence of a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid. Long time commenters will probably remember that Ubi Dubium then proceeded to smash (or possibly squish, given the material in question) my asteroid with their raspberry-flavoured marshmallow planet, damnit.)
For those unfamiliar with it, here's Anselm's version of the argument. There've been "refinements" over the years, but this remains the basis:
- It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
- God exists as an idea in the mind.
- A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
- Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
- But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
- Therefore, God exists.
For those whose eyes just watered, my own confectionary-based parody actually makes it a bit clearer, though no more reasonable.
- Our understanding of a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid is a marshmallow than which no greater can be conceived.
- The idea of a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid exists in the mind.
- A marshmallow which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a marshmallow which exists only in the mind.
- If a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid—that which exists in reality.
- We cannot be imagining a marshmallow which is greater than a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid.
- Therefore, a raspberry-flavoured marshmallow asteroid exists.
Which, basically, says that a most perfect version of anything must exist. Well, yeah. Provided we can agree on what constitutes perfection in a beetle, then somewhere in the world there is a beetle in existence which most closely approaches our ideal of a perfect beetle. There are many near-perfect bank-accounts in the world, failing mostly to reach perfection by virtue of not having the property, "mine."
Since when, though, did the human race ever hold unanimous agreement on what constitutes perfection?
My perfect marshmallow is asteroid-sized, and has a particular orbit. Ubi Dubium's is planet-sized and has (hopefully, or else squish happens) a different orbit. Yours might be a different size again. President Obama's might be lemon-and-lime-flavoured while David Cameron wants Obama's approval enough that he'll decide on lemon. (Nick Clegg is happy with whatever he gets thrown but staunchly supports anything mildly citrus-flavoured.)
The ontological argument provides no definition of "perfect" or "greatest," and so we must suppose that either it fails as a self-contained proof, needing other supporting arguments and data (which is true, but would make for a very short blog-post), or that every version of perfection exists. But Bing Crosby wants the whole world to be made of marshmallow, whilst my mate Jim (who I just made up) dislikes marshmallow so much that he wishes it didn't exist at all. Does the whole universe implode in a puff of paradox? The ontological argument would imply so; the all-marshmallow universe and the non-marshmallow universe are mutually destructive, after all, yet the argument is that not only are they co-existent, but that they are the same universe, given they/it contain/s both the lover and the hater of marshmallow.
Here's another way of looking at it. We could, I suppose, reach some sort of consensus on what qualities would make a perfect sheep. Though no doubt the argument would be long and bitter it's conceivable that we could do the same for the perfect human. I highly doubt that the two would match, however. Easy-sheering and instant obedience to sheep-dogs quite probably wouldn't feature in our list of human perfections, while honesty and the ability to understand mathematics wouldn't exactly be high on our list of perfect ovine attributes. While both the sheep and the person are beings, each may be considered perfect only within its own sub-class of being, "sheep" or "human."
Perfection is, if you will, almost Darwinian. "Perfect" is nearly synonymous to "most fitting." It can only possible apply within the niche occupied by the sub-class of being, never to beings in general, because beings in general occupy many much-varied niches. There is no trend from perfect ant through perfect sheep to perfect human. The differences are not quantitative but qualitative.
The ontological argument, however, asks us to imagine a perfect or greatest possible being. Implicit in this is the assumption that we can extrapolate greatness and perfection by the same means we used to arrive at our perfect sheep and human; but as I've shown, no extrapolation is possible outside the sub-class, and—as we've not yet even proved that the sub-class "gods" exists or defined their niche—such an extrapolation is impossible.
If we want to know what the greatest possible god would be like, we need to know what less-great gods are like. Not exactly an easy thing to show for anyone without recourse to fictional imaginings. For a monotheist, it's impossible by definition.
But let's look at some definitions of "perfect" or "greatest possible." The marshmallow may have been fun, and a good metaphor, but the thing is we don't need metaphor; not really.
Pope Francis believes that the greatest possible being is one who chooses the Roman Catholic church as his Earthly representative, and that the only way to reach this god is through the intercession of that church.
Bob Hutton believes that the greatest possible being is one who communicates with us on a person-by-person basis, and that claims to be his sole and divinely-chosen intercessor are bunkum.
Pat Robinson's greatest possible being doesn't like same-sex marriage.
David Cameron's greatest possible being is fine with same-sex marriage.
Charles I of England's greatest possible being chose him to rule as king.
The equally devout Oliver Cromwell's greatest possible being didn't give such divine mandates to monarchs.
Millions of Muslims believe that the greatest possible being is one who chose both Jesus and Mohammed as prophets.
Millions of Christians believe that the greatest possible being sent neither as a prophet, but that Jesus is/was his son.
Millions of Jews think the greatest possible being had nothing to do with either.
Millions of believers in non-Abrahamic versions of the greatest possible being think all of the above is a crock of bull-god faeces.
Is the greatest possible being one who started the universe off and left it alone thereafter, or is it one who constantly tinkers with the day-to-day running of a vast, complicated machine? For my money, the former, who designs something which needs no maintenance, would be a better, "greater" designer than the latter. The latter, though, could be considered a greater practical engineer, for being willing to watch for and try to fix unforeseen problems, than the aloof designer who smugly assumes that ongoing maintenance won't be necessary. Again, "perfect" or "most great" depends on what sub-class we decide is appropriate.
And then, of course, we come to the most glaring problem with the ontological argument: the idea that just because we can imagine something, then a greater-by-virtue-of-reality version must exist. (Hence the silly marshmallow parody.)
Why should it? Where are they shown, and what are, the logical steps between "I imagine X," and "Therefore X+reality exists"? Nowhere in the argument is it explained why or how our preference for existence over non-existence makes existence a necessity.
The argument is basically a politician's speech. The confusing language, which appears to be setting out a logical argument but isn't, is a feature, not a bug. It wraps nonsense in verbiage, in hopes that the wrapping will distract the reader's attention from the bad reasoning contained within. It is, when that wrapping is removed:
- I define the greatest possible being as God (but refuse to discuss the slippery definition of "greatest").
- The greatest imaginable being must (for reasons I won't go into) exist.
- Therefore God exists.
That's not even logic. It's merely bafflegab presented as such. It should fool no one, yet—and hence my fascination—it does so constantly. Still, at least it affords me, shallow as I am, an easily found source of amusement.
And now, Gentle Reader, I have to bid you farewell. I'm off to pay a visit to Ubi Dubium's planet with my marshmallow Death-Star.
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